From ‘Birth of a Nation’ to ‘Till’: Confronting Racism in the White House Screening Room

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WASHINGTON — In 1915, Woodrow Wilson gathered a small crowd in the East Room of the White House to show “The Birth of a Nation,” a film celebrating the Ku Klux Klan.

More than a century later, in the same room, President Biden on Thursday convened families of people killed in hate crimes for a screening of the movie “Till,” about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy whose murder in 1955 galvanized the civil rights movement.

“History matters,” Mr. Biden said before the movie began, in front of an audience that included members of Emmett’s family, student groups and community activists. “We should know everything about our history, and that’s what great nations do.”

Emmett was kidnapped, tortured and lynched — what Mr. Biden called “pure terror.”

Presidents have long used White House movie screenings for more than just entertainment. The films they choose provide a glimpse into their interests and concerns, as well as the crises defining their time in office.

The first screening of Mr. Biden’s presidency was “The Survivor,” about a man who pursued a professional boxing career after he was forced to fight prisoners in Auschwitz. He and Jill Biden, the first lady, also held a showing of the documentary “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness.”

President George W. Bush in 2006 held a screening of “United 93” for families of victims killed on Sept. 11. “It’s dead silence as the credits roll, and you had sounds of quiet sobbing in the room,” Tony Snow, the press secretary at the time, has said.

And because presidents cannot just pop out to the neighborhood movie theater, they use the White House theater for pleasure, as well. President Donald J. Trump watched “The Greatest Showman” with members of Congress. On election night 2016, President Barack Obama watched “Dr. Strange.” Mr. Bush broke bread with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain over the Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro comedy “Meet the Parents.”

“Movies are a powerful tool,” said Tevi Troy, a historian who has chronicled the film-viewing habits of presidents. “You get a better sense of who they are based off what they watch.”

Rick Collins, whose son, Richard W. Collins III, a Black college student, was stabbed to death by a white man in 2017 just days before his graduation, said it was “bittersweet” to get an invitation to Thursday’s screening of “Till.”

“There is a complete parallel between what happened to our son and the story of Emmett Till,” said Mr. Collins, who could not attend the event. “It’s a continuum of the same things that have been happening for decades, if not centuries, in this nation.”

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

“We’re living through it,” said Mr. Collins, who helps lead the 2nd Lieutenant Richard W. Collins III Foundation, an organization that provides mentoring and scholarships to college students.

Courtney R. Baker, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who focuses on visual culture and Black life, said Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, knew well of the power of visual media: She demanded that her son’s funeral have an open coffin so the world could see what had happened to him at the hands of white supremacists. 

Before the lights went down on Thursday, more than 100 mostly Black historians, civil rights leaders, celebrities and members of Congress walked through the East Room sharing hugs and waves of greeting. Some sat together laughing and enjoying popcorn. Representative Al Green, Democrat of Texas, waved to those seated in the back room and yelled that he enjoyed meeting new people. Whoopi Goldberg entered the room shortly before Mr. Biden.

The president, who signed a bill last year making lynching a federal crime — explicitly criminalizing an act that has come to symbolize the history of racism in the United States — said introducing the film was “maybe the greatest honor I’ve had” since he became president.

But before he did, he noticed a group of high school students from Illinois and Mississippi in the first two rows of seats, just in front of the wide movie screen. The students, dressed in sharp dresses and bright suits — some sporting crisp temp fade haircuts — held their phones up steady as Mr. Biden spoke.

“Are you students?” he asked. Yes, they all answered gleefully.

“Welcome to the White House,” the president said.

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